Transgender issues have been covered before a fair bit on mainstream television, but there is always the fear of misrepresentation when it comes to them being interviewed by people who know pretty much nothing on the topic. Louis Theroux asks Nicki what bottom surgery is, showing that he doesn’t know much about transgender issues from the off, but of course this isn’t a bad thing, he is there to learn and his non-judgemental, open-minded approach allows him intimate access a surprisingly large range of transgender people.
What makes Louis Theroux’s documentary stand out a little from previous programmes done on the same subject matter is his exploration of fluidity in gender. While we do meet some children, such as Camille (born Sebastian), who appear dead-set on which gender they want to present as. Camille explains that she is “both a boy and a girl” right now but wants to be a girl and prefers female pronouns. We meet Camille’s therapist who explains that Camille has been consistent in her feelings about gender for 18 months, and to her this is reason enough to take her identity as a female seriously and not just pass it off as a phase. Camille’s parents are incredibly open-minded when it comes to allowing Camille to express her gender freely, they let her wear what she wants, act how she wants, and in a touching scene we see her impersonate Lady Gaga with a heart-warming enthusiasm.
However, not all children Louis interviews are as clear in which gender they identify as. Cole (sometimes known as Crystal) does not seem as set on a particular gender as someone like Camille. What is interesting about Cole’s story is that although he clearly does at times identify a lot more comfortably with a feminine role, he is a lot more fluid on which gender to be on a day to day basis. He has what his parents refer to as “Cole days” and “Crystal days”. With his mother, Cole appears more inclined to identify as “Crystal” and as such decides to wear girl’s clothes and act more feminine. However, Cole’s father is a lot less ready to allow his child to decide at this stage in his life to change gender, and so when he is with his father, Cole assumes the masculine role he was assigned at birth. The fluidity we see in Cole brings up an important argument about whether we should allow children as young as the age of five to decide to take measures to such as hormone blockers which stop the process of puberty until the child decides for sure which gender they want to present as.
Cole reveals to Louis near the end of the show that he would be content with growing up to be a man. When Louis tells Cole’s mother about this, she regretfully says that it would be much easier for him to stay presenting as male, for social and safety reasons. Cole’s mother is an admirable woman who only wants to do what makes her child happy, and seems to have dealt with his situation amazingly well, although I can sense the doubt and fear in her voice as she talks to Louis. One criticism I would say about how Louis presents this segment of the programme is his lack of acknowledging the identity of genderqueer, which it seems to me, is what seems Cole may identify most strongly with.
Young children put in very adult situations. Louis gets on the same level as kids, goes to have ice cream with Seb, showing his immaturity?
Sebs grandparents not happy with transition, demonstrates both sides of the argument. Mother is clearly very confused about how to feel and who to listen to: her father or her child. She says its “very different on a day to day basis” when you are with Seb.
Louis meets other trans kids – teenagers such as Nicki who talks about her struggles with accepting herself as a believer in God, and having others accept her at school. Her strength is courageous, as we see her tear up a bit as she describes the abuse she has to put up with at school whilst putting on her make-up. Louis later shares his own experience of growing up with her saying that for him, 14 going 15 was “probably the hardest year of my life”, a statement which seems to genuinely comfort Nicki.
Along with exploring the stories of transgender kids, Louis delves briefly into the actual surgery involved in physically transitioning. Louis asks very candid, intimate questions about what gender dysphoria actually means for different people. Even when in the surgery, talking about how to create a believable-looking phallus, Louis does not focus on the logistics of transitioning, but rather the emotional reasons as to why some people choose surgery, and why some do not.
Louis’ documentary is a great introduction into the world of transgender issues, and although some parts of the spectrum are left out, Louis explores a wide range of experiences with grace and respect, and it is certainly pleasing to see so many accepting parents who fully support their child and are not weighed down by social prejudice.
The documentary shows that there is by no means a straight-forward answer to dealing with kids who are gender non-conforming. The therapists involved in these situations seem to prefer to work on a case by case basis, which to me, for now seems like the best way to go about it. At the end of the programme, when questioned on whether there is the possibility a child may choose to transition, but then change their minds, one therapist says “there might be a possibility to change later, but they’ll be alive to change”. This thought-provoking line reminds viewers that, for a lot of children, gender dysphoria is not just a passing phase but a very real problem, which needs to be addressed and not ignored.